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Chris Dunham — From Garret to Garage

This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

Wednesday, May 20, 1998. All rights reserved.

It’s the visual artist’s garret, 1998 urban style:

a big old red brick building, lots of dust and drafts; no heat, no

water — just a young artist, his dog, and his sculptures. That

would be Chris Dunham, formerly of Virginia, Germany, Kentucky,

Pennsylvania,

and his friendly, year-old shepherd mix, "Dog Girl," both

in Dunham’s Trenton studio, where he experiments with metal work,

steaming wood, and other processes that interest him, and turns out

one unique piece of sculpture after another. About 20 of them will

be on view at Art’s Garage in Hopewell — an outre exhibition

space,

1998 style — beginning Saturday, May 23. Housed in Art Helmke’s

Volvo repair shop, Dunham’s 7 to 10 p.m. opening reception promises

a band and a possible appearance by El Nino.

Dunham’s art studies at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where he earned

a BFA in 1993, were more oriented toward concepts than techniques,

he says. They led him to a two-year apprenticeship at the Johnson

Atelier in Mercerville. Since then, he says, "I’ve come to think

I can do it all myself." And the varied works in his two-story

studio — nearly life-size wooden figures, palm-of-hand honeybees,

metal wall pieces, and massive, cast-iron works — attest to his

confidence.

Now 26, Dunham is slightly built, with fine features and an

extravagant

head of reddish hair. He makes both large and small sculptures that

are often figurative, sometimes whimsical, and may involve plays on

words — but they always represent his attempt to duplicate

pictures

from his head or his sketchbook. Dunham’s interest is in

"interactive

sculpture" and believes it should be touched to be enjoyed. That’s

accessible work.

A large piece of maple very nearly became household firewood. Then

Dunham noticed "it was super hard, super beautiful and dry, so

I attacked it with a chain saw." It began as a male figure, he

says. "I carved the head, the shoulders, the torso. Then I

thought,

whoa, the shoulders just aren’t big enough." It is now a woman’s

figure, with eyes cast down and arms folded across her bosom. Her

long pony tail is made of wire.

Sitting on his front porch a few years ago, Dunham watched a bug

explore

a rose leaf, and was fascinated to see it make 90-degree turns on

its surface. He drew the insect’s travel pattern in his sketchbook

and a year later, it turned up on a wall sculpture: a leaf, about

one yard high, hammered out of sheet steel. Zig-zagging around on

the leaf’s gray surface, a brass-tone path traces the bug’s creative

route.

Although Dunham has given his show the intriguing title,

"Who Drives the Driven Man?" he’s ambivalent about titling

individual works. When he uses titles at all, he says he may change

them as his perspective on a piece changes. And knowing that everyone

sees differently anyway, he likes to think that titles are extraneous,

that his pieces will speak for themselves. "Beaching

Charybdis"

is one named, and notable, sculpture. A sculpted bronze wave that

seems to replicate Hokusai’s familiar woodblock print image,

"Great

Wave Off Kanagawa," fills a finely-crafted, curved wooden boat

made from steamed maple and oak wood, with darker Brazilian king wood

trim. Two finny metal oars extend out from each side of the vessel,

and completing the stainless steel tripod that supports the boat,

and in place of a rudder, a bronze fishtail extends from its stern.

Describing the process of metal casting as "easy, really,"

Dunham introduces a monumental anvil, which he produced first in

plaster

and finally in cast iron. He uses materials appropriate to his

subjects,

joking, for instance, about how incongruous a bronze anvil would be.

Accordingly, he made a hanging hammer-man piece from wood and steel.

"I pride myself on exploring as many different techniques as I

can," says the sculptor. One piece, made of steel, copper, silver,

and bronze, is a technical sampler: it encompasses precious

metalsmithing,

blacksmithing, foundry work, and machining, with elements both

delicate

and strong. In appearance, it suggests a combination diving bell and

casket, with a hinged door that opens to reveal a tiny cast bronze

figure of a woman.

To help support his art work, Dunham works on commissions from local

tradespeople and artists for furniture or architectural details, and

he likes it when they involve design, too. When he gets a paycheck,

he plows it and his time into his own projects for a while. And

although

he generally makes one-of-a-kind things, Dunham agrees that his

softball-size,

cast iron cat heads — or "iconic cats" — may be a

limited edition now, but if they’re popular, they’ll become "an

unlimited edition."

In one corner of the studio sits a typewriter about as big as an MG

sportscar. It’s green, it has silver letters reading

"American"

across its front, and when depressed, its keys raise a gallery of

cast aluminum figures. As they rise, these skeletal figures seem to

writhe, facing a giant "page" filled with the words,

"Blah-blah-blah."

Dunham says only that all the figures are different, and that each

is experiencing the page differently. He finds 1950s design

fascinating;

when "they made something, then streamlined it. But when does

a typewriter have to go 40 or 50 miles an hour?"

A green typewriter was a family fixture while he was growing up and

moving from place to place, Dunham explains. The younger of two boys

in a military family (his father was with the Army Corps of

Engineers),

he says he’s the "fluke" in being an artist.

There are more of his own life figures to be found in his work: Cast

in "white bronze" for a pale, pewtery look, the seated figure

of a man watches a bundle of papers (fabricated of silver sheet)

suspended

in the air, as if blowing away. Dunham remembers leaving a job he

had once: "All of a sudden I had no more paperwork, and it was

beautiful."

One atypical piece, combining stained glass and a bronze figure, harks

back to a stay in Japan earlier this year, when he helped build an

artist’s hot-glass studio. Planning ahead, Dunham took the figure

in his luggage, and after learning all he could, topped it with his

own etched-glass design, which he says is about religion and the soul,

without the traditional icons.

His "bee crypt" is another example of Dunham’s small, yet

finely-detailed work. Made of slate, copper, and brass, it’s a

house-like

structure that opens to reveal a carefully wrought bee coffin, about

two inches long.

Art Helmke, who started showing art and sponsoring play and poetry

readings at his garage about six years ago, calls Dunham "the

genuine article. It’s rare," he says, "to find a young guy

with vision and the ability to realize it." A man with a car

repair

business who is also a poet, Helmke says Dunham’s "great

stuff"

will be on view at least a month. "There’s no trouble putting

it here," he says. As for his repair business, "we’ll figure

that out later."

— Pat Summers

Chris Dunham, Art’s Garage, 49 East Broad Street,

Hopewell, 609-466-0618. Opening reception. To June 27. Free.

Saturday,

May 23, 7 to 10 p.m.


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